On a personal note

By David H. Kirkwood

I don’t know how many of our readers check out the Media Room at HearingHealthMatters.org, but if you’re interested in personal glimpses of our editors it’s the place to go.  If you visited the Media Room last year, you might have run across a brief write-up on one of our oldest readers and, without question, my first and least critical admirer: my mother, Pat Kirkwood.

As a traditional journalist, I rarely bring my personal life into my professional writing. That’s why I initially said no when Holly Hosford-Dunn, our editor-in-chief, suggested that I write an item for the Media Room about how at age 94 my mother (no, not my “mom,” a term she detested) had become a regular reader of our blog. However, Holly persisted, arguing that blogs are different, more personal than traditional media. I agreed to ask my mother if she was okay with it. To my surprise, she consented and, despite being camera shy, even let me take a photo of her gazing at her computer screen to run with the write-up.

The item was posted on April 15, 2012, under a headline (“If One Kirkwood Is Good, Two Are Better!”), which I most assuredly did not write. Here, in part, is what it said:

“At age 94, my mother, Pat Kirkwood, is undoubtedly one of our older readers. She originally subscribed to the blog because of me, but she doesn’t confine her reading to my posts. For example, she especially enjoyed Bob Traynor’s recent post on chiropractic and hearing.

Though her PhD is in classics and she taught Latin at Cornell, she has developed an interest in audiology. She is also fascinated by language—etymologies and grammar in particular. And as she reads the blog, she keeps a sharp eye out for less than perfect English. A while ago, she asked me how we permitted a headline to get through that used the word “lays” instead of “lies” in “Old ‘Stuff’ Never Dies—It Just Lays Around.”

As it happens, Holly and I had discussed that very headline and decided that, while grammatically incorrect, the colloquial usage sounded appropriate in context. My mother ceded the point, though she certainly would never have written it that way herself!”

I think my mother got a kick out of appearing on a blog at her advanced age, though she was not at all happy with the photo I took.

What the Media Room item said about my mother was accurate when it was posted. Sadly, though, in June, she was diagnosed with advanced leukemia. On December 14, she died, at home in Ithaca, NY, with her family, at age 95.

Pat Kirkwood to useWhile the original item about my mother reading this blog has been taken down, I would like to tell you more about her here. I’ll start by posting a different photo, taken for her college graduation, that I’m sure she would prefer to the one that ran last spring.

During a long and fulfilling life, Pat Kirkwood pursued many passions. In addition to being a devoted wife and mother, she loved teaching, making and listening to music, growing flowers and vegetables, translating and editing academic works, and traveling the world with her husband.

She also devoted much of her formidable energy and intelligence to causes that she believed in. Most of these involved working for peace and championing the underdog.

A lifelong pacifist, Mrs. Kirkwood was especially involved in opposing the war in Vietnam. She was a local leader in Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign to end that war.

Pat and her husband played a leading role in establishing the first group residences in Ithaca, and associated programs, for people with mental health difficulties.

Born Patricia Marie Frueh (pronounced free) on August 29, 1917, Pat grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her parents, Leo and Marie Frueh, owned and ran The Brooklyn-Parma News Times, a community newspaper. After graduating from Villa Angela, a Catholic girls’ boarding school in Cleveland, she enrolled at Cornell University, starting a long family tradition. She was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year en route to earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics in 1938 and 1939, respectively.

Cornell was also where she met a handsome young Canadian, who was a fellow graduate student in classics. The day she spotted Gordon Kirkwood, Pat told her roommate that she would marry him. In 1940 they were wedded, fulfilling her prophecy. Their marriage lasted for 66 years.

After Cornell, they attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where both received doctorates in classics.

During World War II, the Kirkwoods lived in Ottawa, where he was a Canadian Navy Intelligence Officer. In 1946, they returned to the United States and settled in Ithaca, where he began a long career in the Classics Department at Cornell.

Although she also had prepared for an academic career, Pat Kirkwood followed a more traditional path for women in that era. She was a devoted wife and an adoring mother to her sons, Michael, born in 1943, and David, in 1946.

She was also deeply involved in activities outside the home. She went door to door raising money for the March of Dimes, which helped fund the research that led to a vaccine against polio. She was a leader in a cultural program for children that brought performers to Ithaca, including the folk singer Pete Seeger, who was blacklisted at the time for his progressive political views.

A music lover, she played the piano and sang in community choirs. In the 1960s, she took up the French horn and for many years played in the Ithaca Concert Band.

Pat Kirkwood also made use of her training in classics. She translated the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler’s work Somnium from Latin into English for the book Kepler’s Dream, published in 1965 and reprinted several times thereafter. The astronomer Carl Sagan and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov both considered Kepler’s story of a trip to the moon to be the first work of science fiction.

Pat was a teacher at heart with a special passion for the structure and grammar of language. She taught English as a second language in a local community program for adults from other countries and also privately tutored foreign students in English.

In the 1970s, she was appointed a lecturer in the Cornell Classics Department, where she taught beginning Latin for about a decade. She was an enthusiastic and successful teacher, even of students who were taking Latin only to meet the language requirement for graduation.

She enjoyed reminding one such former student, whom she sometimes encountered around town, that he was the worst student she had ever passed. Apparently, he had other talents since he became a successful restaurateur and then mayor of Ithaca.

Throughout their marriage, the Kirkwoods loved to travel.  They visited more than 50 countries on every continent and also went to 49 U.S. states and all 10 Canadian provinces. As classicists, they returned over and over to the Mediterranean, spending years living in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and Cyprus.

After devotedly caring for her husband at home for many months before his death in 2007, Pat Kirkwood remained active into her mid-90s. She lived independently and still drove regularly around town until just months before her death. She grew tomatoes and morning glories on her back porch and continued her tireless involvement with mental health programs in Ithaca.

As she outlived her old friends, mostly Cornell faculty members and their spouses, she made many younger ones drawn from many walks of life. These included mailmen, the woman who mowed her lawn, two men who did work for her around the house, one of her first English-as-a-second-language students, her banker, and a former Peace Corps volunteer and supporter of progressive causes, who recruited her to become a partner in a local bookstore. Pat frequently commented that she found these friends at least as interesting as the people she had known in academia.

In June 2012, she was diagnosed with advanced leukemia and told by her oncologist (inaccurately, as it turned out) that she would most likely live only three to four weeks. With characteristic courage and will power, she determined to make the most of whatever time she had left and to spend it in the home that she and Gordon had built and cherished for 50 years.

For several months, she entertained a steady stream of family, friends, and other well-wishers. She downplayed her own illness, preferring to focus on her visitors’ concerns. A gracious host until the end, she made sure her guests were provided with food and drink. And, if it was the cocktail hour, she encouraged them to join her for a shot (or two) of single-malt Scotch.

All in all, hers was a life worth toasting and remembering.

1 Comment

  1. David,
    Michael and I are so sorry for your loss. Your mom sounds like a wonderful women, no surprise, she raised a pretty terrific son!
    Robin and Michael Clowers

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